The ethereal Olive Thomas is the inspiration for one of the secondary characters in my novel, Grace in the Wings, the first book in a mystery series that is currently being shopped by my agent for purchase.
Sophia Michelle is the older sister of my protagonist, Grace. Orphaned at 15, Sophia vowed that she and Grace would always have a roof over their heads, never go hungry and never live in an orphanage. She relied on the only asset she possessed at the time, her captivating beauty. She spent many nights “out” but always provided for her sister until she was discovered by the famous show-man, Florenz Ziegfeld, who took the girls under his wing and made Sophia a star.
Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894, to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania. At 15 years of age she was forced to leave school and help support the family. At 16 she married Bernard Krush Thomas. The marriage lasted two years. After her divorce she moved to New York City, lived with a family member, and worked in a Harlem department store. In 1914, she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Having caught the public’s attention, and the eye of the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, Olive was hired to perform in his wildly popular Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t long before Olive had star billing in the Midnight Frolic, a show at one of Ziegfeld’s favored venues, the Roof Top Theater of the New Amsterdam Hotel. The Frolic catered primarily to well-known male patrons. The girls’ costumes, often just a few strategically arranged balloons, allowed amusement for the gentlemen who would pop the balloons with their cigars. The beauty of Olive Thomas became legendary and she was pursued by a number of wealthy men. She is said to have had “lovely violet-blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes that seemed darker because of the translucent pallor of her skin.”
Known for her beauty, Olive was also known for her wild ways. That free spiritedness became more pronounced when she became involved with Jack Pickford of the famous Pickford family. Alcohol and cocaine became part of her partying repertoire and it proved to be reckless. She had three automobile accidents in one year. After that, she hired a chauffeur.
Screenwriter Frances Marion later remarked, “…I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary’s brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.”
The marriage to Pickford caused much trouble for both parties. For Jack, his high-brow famous family did not approve of Olive’s work in the Frolics, and for Olive, her employer Florenz Ziegfeld accused Jack of taking her away from his entertainment dynasty. There were rumors that Flo and Olive were also romantically involved.
The relationship with Pickford could even have been said to contribute to her sudden death in 1920. After a long night of dancing, drinking and drugs, Olive and Jack went back to their hotel room. Suddenly, from the bathroom, Jack heard Olive scream, “Oh God!” According to Jack’s account, Olive had accidentally drunk from a bottle of something marked “poison”. After a trip to the hospital and having her stomach pumped three times to no avail, Olive Thomas died. The autopsy stated that she died of a mixture of mercury bichloride and alcohol. Mercury bichloride was the prescribed tonic for Jack’s persistant and cronic syphyllis.
Olive Thomas had a short, but successful career. She worked for the Ziegfeld Follies and Midnight Frolic and she starred in over twenty motion pictures. She was also one of the first actresses to be termed “a flapper,” along with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford.